By: Suanne Kowal-Connelly, MD, FAAP
There appears to be increasing numbers of children who specialize in a single sport at an early age and train year-round for this sport. While the lure of a college scholarship or a professional career can motivate young athletes (and their parents) to commit to specialized training regimens at an early age, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends avoiding specializing in one sport before puberty.
The Growing & Maturing Skeleton
Puberty is a period of rapid growth.
- Girls: On average, rapid growth occurs around age eleven and a half, but it can begin as early as eight or as late as fourteen.
- Boys: Usually trail behind by about two years—this is why thirteen-year-old girls can, for a time, be a head taller than thirteen year old boys.
Once puberty begins, both boys and girls go through their adolescent growth spurt (AGS). Needless to say, these changes and the ages at which they occur can have an impact on a child’s sports performance.
Changes in Athletic Performance during the Adolescent Growth Spurt
Going through puberty can have a significant impact on athletic performance in both positive and negative ways. While increases in body size, hormones, and muscle strength can improve athletic performance, there may be a temporary decline in balance skills and body control during the AGS. Quick increases in height and weight effect the body’s center of gravity. Sometimes, the brain has to adjust to this higher observation point, and a teen may seem a bit “clumsy.”
This phase especially noticeable in sports that require good balance and body control (e.g. figure skating, diving, gymnastics, basketball). In addition, longer arms and legs can affect throwing any type of ball, hitting with a bat or racquet, catching with a glove or lacrosse stick, swimming and jumping. Coaches and trainers that are aware of the AGS can help reduce athletic awkwardness by incorporating specific aspects of training into practices and training sessions.
Understanding Growth Plates
Children’s bones differ from adults. Inside the ends of their bones is a section of cartilage that eventually turns into bone when they are finished growing. This section of cartilage, called the growth plate, is actually responsible for growth. It is much more delicate than the surrounding bone, muscle, tendons or ligaments. The growth plate is also weakest during periods of most rapid growth or AGS. Injury to the growth plate can limit the ability for the bone to grow properly.
What causes growth plate injuries?
Injuries to the growth plate are fractures. Some growth plate injuries are caused by an acute event, such as a fall or a blow to a limb, while others result from overuse or repetitive stress to the growth plate. For example, a gymnast who practices tumbling routines for many hours each week, a long-distance runner ramping up mileage in preparation for a race, or a baseball pitcher perfecting his fastball are all at risk for developing overuse injuries to a growth plate.
Prevent ACL Injuries
As pre-teens enter into puberty and grow taller and heavier, their risk of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury increases. The ACL is one of the main ligaments providing stability to the knee.
According to the 2014 AAP clinical report, ACL injury risk begins to increase significantly at 12 to 13 years of age in girls and at 14 to 15 years of age in boys. Teenage girls are at higher risk of ACL injury, because they tend to use their muscles differently than boys during sports skills such as jumping and landing. During puberty, body size increases for both sexes, but boys also get a burst of testosterone which results in larger, stronger muscles to control their new body; girls do not get this same rapid growth in muscle power. Watch the video, Preventing ACL Injuries in Young Athletes, for more information.
Remember, Puberty is Temporary
It is important for parents to stay positive and seek out coaches who are well-versed in the nuances of puberty and AGS. Being constantly yelled at by a coach or put down by a disappointed parent can cause the child to quit the sport altogether.
Your job as a parent isn’t to produce another Olympian—it’s to make sure your kids fall in love with an activity in a lasting way so they become healthy adults. Support and encourage them to make fitness a way of life!